La La Land – Raising Bertie – Panamerican Machinery – Paradise – Moonlight – Kati Kati – Samuel in the Clouds

Chicago Film Festival 2016
Main Competition Jury: Geraldine Chaplin (president), Chin Han, Yulene Olaizola Léon, Juan Taratuto, David Verbeek

Click here for my full write-up of the festival for Film Comment!

Gold Hugo of the Festival:Sieranevada, Romania, dir. Cristi Puiu
Silver Hugo:The Salesman, Iran, dir. Asghar Farhadi
Best Director:Sieranevada, Romania, Cristi Puiu
Best Actress:Christine, Rebecca Hall
Best Actor:Graduation, Adrian Titieni
Best Screenplay:Graduation, Cristian Mungiu
Best Cinematography:The Last Family, Kacper Fertacz
Best Art Direction:The Last Family, Jagna Janicka
DocuFest Gold Hugo*:
Samuel in the Clouds, The Netherlands/Belgium/Bolivia, dir. Pieter van Eecke
Docufest Silver Hugo*:Where You're Meant to Be, UK, dir. Paul Fegan
New Directors Gold Hugo*:
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, Finland, dir. Juho Kuosmanen
New Directors Silver Hugo*:Fado, Germany/Portugal, dir. Jonas Rothlaender
Q Hugo Award*:
Heartstone, Iceland, dir. Guðmunder Amar Guðmundsson
Q Hugo Silver Hugo*:Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, France, dirs. Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Founder's Award:
Paradise, Andrei Konchalovsky
Roger Ebert Award:Kills on Wheels, Hungary, dir. Attila Till
Audience Choice Award (Narrative)**: 
Lion, Australia/India, dir. Garth Davis
Moonlight, USA, dir. Barry Jenkins
Audience Choice Award (DocuFest)**: 
I Am Not Your Negro, Switzerland/France/Belgium/UK, dir. Raoul Peck
* These awards are determined by separately constituted juries
** Voted by the public, and announced later than the other awards

Features I Saw at CIFF:
Ranked in order of preference
My Golden Hugo
Raising Bertie A– (Documentary/Black Perspectives/City & State; USA, dir. Margaret Byrne) - Personal and systemic travails of poor black teens and their rural community, conveyed with candor and compassion.

Moonlight A– (Special Presentations/Black Perspectives; USA, dir. Barry Jenkins) - Black men, queer and not, claim space at the unlikely cross of Malick, Wong, Denis. Focused, elliptical, frank, oceanic.

Do Not Resist A– (Documentary; USA, dir. Craig Atkinson) - Brilliantly mixed and shot documentary. A case against police militarization as hard and compact as a blood diamond.

Fire at Sea A– (Documentary; USA, dir. Gianfranco Rosi) - Direct chronicle of refugees' ordeals is predictably harrowing. Quotidian survey of their destination oddly haunting.

24 Weeks A– (Main Competition; Germany, dir. Anne Zohra Berrached) - Layered, moving drama about a mother-to-be contemplating an abortion refuses to simplify dilemmas or sell out characters.

Starless Dreams A– (Documentary; Iran, dir. Mehrdad Oskouei) - Documentary about teenaged female prisoners in Iran all the more haunting for its varied and lively depictions.

Elle A– (Special Presentations; France, dir. Paul Verhoeven) - A combustion engine. Pure bad taste is its fossil fuel, but it's hard to be angry because it produces such unexpected art.

The Salesman A– (Main Competition; Iran, dir. Asghar Farhadi) - Complex story about sexual assault and mercenary prosecution is also a deft meditation on identity as a performance.

Neruda B+ (World Cinema/Cinema of the Americas; Chile, dir. Pablo Larraín) - Martyrdom and persecution, reciprocally embellishing each other. Larraín's heady concepts as twisty and tight as a knot.

Wolf and Sheep B+ (New Directors Competition; Afghanistan, dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat) - Afghani woman's tantalizing debut merges documentary and dreamscape elements into a coherent and controlled whole.

Panamerican Machinery B+ (World Cinema/Cinema of the Americas; Mexico, dir. Joaquin del Paso) - Sort of a Lanthimos take on Mexican factory-floor malaise, or High-Rise with more tricky feelings and tones.

Crosscurrent B+ (World Cinema; China, dir. Chao Yang) - Mark Lee Ping Bin, who deserves a Nobel in cinema, shot this agnostic epic about poetry and industry in modern China.

Kati Kati B+ (World Cinema/Black Perspectives; Kenya/Germany, dir. Mbithi Masya) - Finally, a fresh take on how the afterlife might look and feel, and a welcome case of African film in speculative mode.

A Quiet Passion B+ (Special Presentations; UK, dir. Terence Davies) - Divisive for good reasons, but I segued from deep frustration to finding it Davies's boldest and best in 25 years.

Sieranevada B+ (Main Competition; Romania, dir. Cristi Puiu) - Pulls into its lane early. Course stays pretty consistent but the cast and camera negotiate it expertly. Very assured.

A Mere Breath B+ (Documentary Competition; Romania, dir. Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan) - Coolly watchful camera sees a family held together and pulled apart by father's faith that God will heal disability.

Samuel in the Clouds B+ (Documentary Competition; Bolivia, dir. Pieter Van Eecke) - Mutedly scary climate-change chronicle, as an aging Bolivian ski-lift operator sees the sun bake his slope.

Girls Don't Fly B+ (Documentary Competition/Black Perspectives; Germany/Austria, dir. Monika Grassl) - Inspiring tale of outside-the-box philanthropy becomes one of cynical exploitation. Sad, but sharp and observant.

Malaria B (World Cinema; Iran, dir. Parviz Shahbazi) - Lovers-on-the-run drama builds impressive tension and rich character detail, especially around its edges. Why not released?

Paradise B (Main Competition; Russia/Germany, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky) - Retains a noble austerity despite some showy directorial conceits. A few generic turns and figures. Vysotskaya very good.

The Swedish Theory of Love B (Documentary Competition; Sweden, dir. Erik Gandini) - Drolly undermines myth of Sweden as an unusually socialized society, with melancholic undertows as well.

Kékszakállú B (World Cinema/Cinema of the Americas; Argentina, dir. Gastón Solnicki) - Rides a line between dull and slowly engrossing, enigmatic and insubstantial, but I appreciated its formal innovations.

Santa y Andrés B (New Directors Competition/Cinema of the Americas; Cuba, dir. Carlos Lechuga) - Before Night Falls, minus flash or flesh. Kiss of the Spider Woman with fewer fantasies. Smart political two-hander.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds B (Documentary; USA, dirs. Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens) - As fun as you want a Debbie Reynolds-Carrie Fisher hangout to be; poignant, too, on aging, fame, and mental illness.

Layla M. B (Main Competition; The Netherlands, dir. Mijke de Jong) - Not novel filmmaking but captures radicalism and ambivalence in its teenaged Dutch-Moroccan heroine. El Koussour great.

I, Daniel Blake B (Special Presentations; UK, dir. Ken Loach) - "I, Ken Loach, have never wavered in my politics and maybe I don't modulate each scene but this is who I fuckin' am."

Being 17 B (World Cinema/OutLook Competition; France, dir. André Téchiné) - Didn't love the lighting. Plot forced at times. Core cadre of actors and sensitive script and direction still carry it.

Raw B (After Dark; France, dir. Julia Ducournau) - Premise and style both present as tours de force—maybe too self-consciously so. Very compelling surface. But what lies beneath?

Mirzya B (Special Presentations; India, dir. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) - Extravagant and dopey more than once, but if this is your aesthetic, the sounds and spectacles are riveting on a big screen.

Among Wolves B (Documentary Competition/City & State; USA/Germany/Bosnia Herzegovina, dir. Shawn Convey) - Pushed my thinking about bikers more than about Bosnia. Resonances definitely accrete; still needs trim and focus.

Karl Marx City B (Documentary Competition; Germany, dirs. Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker) - Co-director investigates whether her late father was a Stasi informant. Alternates between the general and personal.

La La Land B– (Opening Night; USA, dir. Damien Chazelle) - Stone, Gosling are assets, increasingly. Really disliked the lighting and look. Chazelle shows off at his own expense.

Christine B– (Main Competition; USA, dir. Antonio Campos) - Solid, absorbing, but like Christine it works very hard at obvious goals without illuminating enough. Dizzia a standout.

Christine B– (After Dark/Cinema of the Americas; Mexico, dir. Emiliano Rocha Minter) - Salò meets The Descent? The ogre chapter of Holy Motors as Mexican horror porn? Gross, but stylish and pointed.

American Anarchist B– (Documentary; USA, dir. Charlie Siskel) - Documentary about William Powell, the author of the infamous Anarchist Cookbook, who is slowly grasping the scope of his book's influence.

93 Days B– (World Cinema/Black Perspectives; Nigeria, dir. Steve Gukas) - Big-budget, internationally funded Nigerian Ebola drama lands some strong emotional beats but often feels crude and hasty.

Staying Vertical B– (World Cinema/OutLook Competition; France, dir. Alain Guiraudie) - Another study of abject desire, but entropic where Stranger by the Lake was demonically controlled. I feel mixed.

Are We Not Cats B– (New Directors Competition; USA, dir. Xander Robin) - Marches to the beat of its own—litterbox? That makes no sense. Often the movie doesn't, either. But it's unique.

Strike a Pose B– (Documentary/OutLook Competition; USA, dirs. Ester Gould, Reijer Zwann) - Meaningful to fans, and to the subjects. Moving tribute to living with HIV and surviving bad years. Otherwise? Fine.

Where You're Meant to Be B– (Documentary Competition; UK, dir. Paul Fegan) - Intended tribute to The Old Ways comes through in flashes but decks feel stacked, the direction too smug.

Ministry of Love B– (World Cinema; Croatia, dir. Pavo Marinković) - Peculiar Croatian comedy about investigating widows' claims on government funds feels a draft away from liftoff.

Heartstone C+ (New Directors Competition/OutLook Competition; Iceland, dir. Guðmunder Amar Guðmundsson) - Sympathetically in touch with pubescent romantic and sexual confusion, but too vague in insight and style, and too long.

Finals C+ (New Directors Competition; Iran, dir. Adel Yaraghi) - Iranian drama, coscripted by Kiarostami, strains for a level of multi-sided domestic tension that for me it rarely attains.

Prevenge C+ (After Dark; UK, dir. Alice Lowe) - Pregnant Alice Lowe directs herself as a woman gestating an audible, murder-minded fetus. Yep. The fun slowly winds down.

Illegitimate C+ (World Cinema; Romania, dir. Adrian Sitaru) - Romanian actors never let you down, but script and direction often did. Weird points of emphasis. Ending falls flat.

The Daughter C+ (World Cinema/Cinema of the Americas; Argentina, dir. Luis Sampieri) - The protest of classed and gendered exploitation is so clearly conveyed as to risk seeming familiar and predictable.

The Darkness C+ (After Dark/Cinema of the Americas; Mexico, dir. Daniel Castro Zimbrón) - Folks keep reproducing these restricted-location postapocalyptic mood-piece thrillers, and they're usually identical.

Fado C (New Directors Competition; Germany, dir. Jonas Rothlaender) - Can't work out what the CIFF jury saw in this tale of extreme sexual jealousy, which seemed as narrow and stunted as its lead.

Festival titles I saw before CIFF: I Promise You Anarchy, Things to Come

Festival titles I saw after CIFF: Arrival, The Eyes of My Mother, Graduation, The Handmaiden, I Am Not Your Negro, Jackie, Lion, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, Paterson

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